The Grain Group includes any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas and grits are examples of grain products.

Whole Grains

Grains are divided into two subgroups: whole grains such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice; and nutrient enriched refined grains such as white bread and white rice.

Enriched refined grains are fortified with the B vitamin folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy and possibly heart attacks and strokes. They contain twice as much folic acid as whole grains.

Grain foods themselves are not fattening, as many believe. It is the toppings, sauces and fillings added to grain-based foods that add calories and fat.

Whole Grains and Obesity

Obese adults who slashed calorie and added whole grains (think brown rice, oatmeal) to their diets lost more belly fat than dieters who ate refined grains (like white bread), a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says.

Proven and significant health benefits of whole-grains come from the whole grain nutrient “package”, not just from the fiber or individual nutrients.

Whole Grains vs. Heart Failure

Men who consume more whole-grain breakfast cereals have a lower risk of heart failure, the leading cause of hospitalization among older Americans. One out of five 40-year olds will be diagnosed with heart failure in his or her lifetime. Researchers tracked more than 21,000 participants in the Physicians’ Health Study for an average of 20 years.

Those who ate whole-grain cereal at least seven times a week had a 28 percent lower risk of heart failure than those who ate whole-grain cereal less than once a week. Those who hate whole-grain cereal two to six times a week had a 22 percent lower risk. Refined grains weren’t linked to heart failure.

Why Eat Whole Grains?

Eat whole, not refined grains. Earlier studies found a lower risk of heart attacks and high blood pressure in whole-grain eaters. It is not clear whether the potassium, antioxidants, phytoestrogens, fiber, or other constituents of whole grains and may protect the heart. It is also possible that something else about whole-grain eaters kept their hearts pumping, though the researchers accounted for age, smoking, alcohol, vegetables, multivitamins, exercise and other factors.

Whole grains contain hundreds of phytonutrients that appear to work together in powerful ways with the fiber and other nutrients to protect against chronic diseases like heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes.

Whole grains have a pleasant, nutty flavor and in some cases, such as breads, may be denser.

Learn to appreciate these qualities of whole grains either alone or with low fat additions to reap the array of health benefits.

Do You Eat Your Grains?

Let’s face it, most of us simply don’t eat our whole-grains as we should. We know brown rice is better than white and that whole wheat is better than Wonder Bread, but how often do we actually act on that information? It’s tough! It’s also something we should make more of an effort to do.

Packed with fiber, protein and carbohydrates, whole grains can take a merely average diet to the next level.

Processed grains such as white flour and white rice are stripped of nutrients during milling. The bran, removed during processing, contains most of the fiber in grains and the germ (also removed during processing) packs significant quantities of heart-healthy vitamin E.

Many of us are not aware that there are options beyond brown rice and whole-wheat bread. There is a whole world of grains out there! Bulgar, kasha, barley, to name a few, have flavors and textures all their own.

Following are the definitions of grains and a few suggestions as to how you can incorporate them into your diet.

Pearl Barley

The same grain that is malted to make beer and whiskey gets teamed and polished into pearls. Pearl barley can be ground to make barley flour, or whole, makes a great addition to soups and stews.

Oats

Oats are the most nutritious of the cereal grasses (with instant oatmeal some of the fiber gets lost in the processing). Use oats in muffins, cookies, snack mixes, etc.

Wheat Berries

Wheat berries are whole, unprocessed kernels of wheat with a nutty, crunchy texture. Look for them in health-food stores or large supermarkets and add them to soups, breads and hot cereals.

Whole-Wheat Flour

An unmilled version of white flour, whole-wheat flour makes hearty pasta and deeply flavored breads. To convert a regular bread recipe into a whole-wheat recipe, substitute half of the white flour with whole-wheat flour.

Cornmeal

Made by grinding dried corn kernels, cornmeal can be yellow, white or blue, depending on the type of corn used. Water-ground (rather than the more common steel-ground variety) is healthier because it contains some of the hull and germ. It can last up to four months in the refrigerator.

Wheat Germ

Wheat germ is the nutrient-packed center of the wheat berry, the source of all the vitamins, minerals, and proteins. It adds a nutty flavor to hot cereals and yeast breads.

Wheat Germ always has provided an impressive bundle of nutrients including vitamin E, folate, phosphorus, thiamin, zinc and magnesium.

Wheat germ contains naturally occurring polyunsaturated fat. A two-tablespoon serving of original toasted wheat germ contains 50 calories and 1 gram of fat; a 1-2/3 tablespoon serving of honey crunch wheat germ contains 50 calories and 1 gram of fat.

It has long been known that the folic acid in wheat germ can help prevent birth defects – doctors often encourage pregnant women to add wheat germ to their diets for this very reason.

In addition to folic acid, wheat germ contains essential B vitamins. Therefore, further studies now show more benefits for everyone from wheat germ. B vitamins, especially B6, B12 and folic acid lower the level of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood. Heightened levels of this substance have been linked to an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine from the results of extensive studies is evidence that high homocysteine levels also indicate a risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Although a bit tentative, this research does provide reason enough to include crunchy toasted wheat germ in your diet. Try sprinkling it on yogurt or on top of muffins and breads before baking.

Storing Wheat Germ

Because of its high oil content, improperly stored wheat germ can become rancid. So store it in sealed glass jars and keep it refrigerated. Find other, prepackaged wheat products in most natural foods and grocery stores; buy in bulk for maximum savings.

Wheat Germ Oil

There are no extra health benefits to wheat germ oil, as far as we know. But there is nothing in wheat germ oil that is likely to cause you any harm. In general, wheat germ oil contains fat, a white alcohol called octacosanol, and vitamin E as well as other vitamins and minerals.

In the 1960’s, based on studies conducted in the US and Russia, wheat germ oil was touted as improving endurance, reaction times, stamina, and vigor. However, there has been considerable criticism about how these studies were conducted and the way the findings were interpreted. Also, the active ingredients that were supposed to cause the beneficial effects could not be identified. Some said it was the vitamin E; others pointed to the octacosanol as the source.

Eventually, the Federal Trade Commission analyzed many of the published studies and concluded that wheat germ oil did not have special fitness, athletic or health enhancing qualities. Advertisements saying wheat germ oil did have such attributes have since been banned.

Wheat Bran

Wheat bran is one of nature’s richest sources of natural food fiber, recognized for its role in helping to maintain regularity.

Many commercial oat bran and wheat bran products (muffins, chips, waffles) contain very little bran. They also may be high in sodium, total fat and saturated fat. Read labels carefully.

Wheat bran can help:

  • Give you 100 percent of the natural fiber you need.
  • Help maintain regularity.
  • Help maintain normal bowel function.
  • Relieve occasional constipation, such as caused by changes in dietary habits or travel.

Wheat bran, the outer layer of the grain, is rich in fiber and nutrients.

Flaxseed

Flaxseed has calcium, iron, niacin and vitamin E and is a great way to get omega-3 fatty acids.

Kasha

Kasha, aka roasted buckwheat groats, have a nutty, toasty flavor that makes them perfect for pilafs.

Couscous (KOOS-koos)

Finely cracked wheat granules with a soft buttery flavor. Couscous makes an excellent bed for salad dishes or stews.

A staple of North African cuisine, couscous is granular semolina. Cooked, it may be served with milk as porridge, with a dressing as a salad or sweetened and mixed with fruits for dessert. Packaged precooked couscous is available in Middle Eastern markets and large supermarkets.

Bulgur

Bulgur is granules of crushed wheat with a nutty flavor. Best used in a broth, bean dishes or mixed with rice for an unusual pilaf. Bulgur is made from wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried, and crushed. Middle Eastern cooks favor its tender, chewy texture.

A nutritious staple in the Middle East, bulgur wheat consists of wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed. It is often confused with but is not exactly the same as cracked wheat. Bulgur, also called burghul, has a tender, chewy texture and comes in coarse, medium and fine grinds. It makes an excellent wheat pilaf and is delicious in salads (see tabbouleh), and in meat or vegetable dishes, as with kibbeh.

Buckwheat Groats

Roasted buckwheat groats are also known as kasha. They are not really grains, but resemble grains and have a brown pyramid shape. Best used in broths and stir-fried eggs.

Groats

Hulled crushed grain, such as barley, buckwheat or oats. The most widely used are buckwheat groats (also known as kasha, which are usually cooked in a manner similar to rice. Though groats are generally thought to be more coarsely ground than grits, they come in a variety of grinds including coarse, medium and fine. The two names-grits and groats-are often used synonymously. Groats are widely used in cereals, as a side dish with vegetables or as a thickener and enricher for soup.

Buckwheat flour is typically more coarse and more highly colored than wheat flour. Buckwheat middlings, which include the layer immediately below the hull and the germ, provide valuable animal feed stock. In the United States, buckwheat flour is used primarily in pancake mix formulations, blended with wheat, corn, rice, or oat flour.

Barley

Grains of barley look like smooth small pearls. Excellent source of soluble fiber and in some studies has been shown to lower cholesterol. Best used in salads or with tuna.

This hardy grain dates back to the Stone Age and has been used throughout the eons in dishes ranging from cereals to breads to soups (such as the famous scotch broth). Hulled (also called whole-grain) barley has only the outer husk removed and is the most nutritious form of the grain. Scotch barley is husked and coarsely ground. Barley grits are hulled barley grains that have been cracked into medium-coarse pieces.

Hulled and Scotch barley and barley grits are generally found in natural food stores. Pearl barley has also had the bran removed and has been steamed and polished. It comes in three sizes-coarse, medium and fine-and is good in soups and stews. When combined with water and lemon, pearl barley is used to make barley water, an old-fashioned restorative for invalids.

Amaranth

Amaranth resembles golden poppy seeds. When cooked it has a consistency of a crunchy porridge. Has a corn-like flavor and is best used as a breakfast cereal.

Once considered a simple weed in the United States, this nutritious annual is finally being acknowledged as the nourishing high-protein food it is. Amaranth greens have a delicious, slightly sweet flavor and can be used both in cooking and for salads. The seeds are used as cereal or can be ground into flour for bread. Amaranth seeds and flour can be found in natural food stores, as well as in some Caribbean and Asian markets.

Quinoa

Quinoa (keen-wa) is a mild flavored grain that will substitute for rice. Has a bitter coating and should be rinsed under cold running water several times before cooking. Quinoa is a grain like product, related to Swiss chard and spinach. Quinoa is often referred to as a super grain because of its high levels of iron.

Quinoa is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight essential amino acids. Quinoa is also higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates than most grains, and it provides a rich and balanced source of vital nutrients. Tiny and bead-shaped, the ivory-colored quinoa cooks like rice (taking half the time of regular rice) and expands to four times its original volume.

The flavor of quinoa is delicate, almost bland, and has been compared to that of couscous. Quinoa is lighter than but can be used in any way suitable for rice — as part of a main dish, a side dish, in soups, in salads and even in puddings. It’s available packaged as a grain, ground into flour and in several forms of pasta. Quinoa can be found in natural food stores and some supermarkets.

Millet

Millet is a popular grain used for numerous vegetarian dishes or in tomato sauce. One-third of the world’s population eats millet as a staple of their diets. Rich in protein, the tiny grains are prepared like rice, or ground and used like flour.

Though America cultivates this cereal grass almost exclusively for fodder and bird seed, millet is a staple for almost 1/3 of the world’s population, particularly in disadvantaged regions of Asia and Africa. There are many varieties of millet, most of which are rich in protein.

Millet has a bland flavor that lends itself well as a background to other seasonings. It’s prepared like rice by boiling it in water and is used to make hot cereal and dishes like pilaf. Ground millet is used as a flour to make puddings, breads and cakes. Millet can be found in Asian markets and natural food stores.

Make it Easy to Add Grains

Adding whole grain foods to your eating plan is easy with quick ideas like these.

  • Include a whole grain cereal in your breakfast or snack.
  • Try quick-cooking versions of oatmeal, barley and brown rice.
  • Make sandwiches with whole wheat or whole rye bread.
  • Use whole wheat pasta in your favorite recipes. It comes in a variety of shapes.
  • Snack on whole grain crackers or reduced fat microwave popcorn.

Smart Portion Sizes for Your Grains

  • 1/2 cup cooked cereal, pasta or rice = a computer mouse
  • 1 cup dry cereal = a baseball
  • 1 bagel = a hockey puck
  • 1 tortilla = a small (7-inch) salad plate
  • 1 pancake or waffle = a music CD
  • 4 small cookies such as vanilla wafers = 4 casino chips

Read More: Food Facts